ANALYSIS: Is Jailing Killer Drivers the Only Way Forward for Street Safety?

The corner where Allison Liao was killed was named in her honor. Photo: Families for Safe Streets
The corner where Allison Liao was killed was named in her honor. Photo: Families for Safe Streets

A young Black man from Brownsville is facing 15 years behind bars after he fatally struck a father this past summer in Brooklyn — a prosecutorial decision that some legal experts and some advocates cheered, but others say will do nothing to keep streets safer.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who has faced criticism for letting other drivers entirely off the hook, threw the book at 21-year-old Kareem Denton last month, charging him with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and assault as part of a 16-count indictment after Denton hit and killed 50-year-old Jose Barrera in front of his young daughter in July.

Gonzalez says that at the time of the fatal crash, Denton was driving with a forged New York State inspection sticker, and going more than 60 miles per hour on tires so worn they caused him to lose control.

The indictment is a first for the DA’s new Street Safety Bureau that launched around the same time as Denton — who was declared indigent by the state — decided to take out his car with tires he allegedly knew were so dangerously worn that Gonzalez says they “likely contributed to the crash.”

“The defendant chose to drive a car he knew was not safe, allegedly sped on wet road conditions and took the life of a hard-working father,” Gonzalez said in a statement in January, touting his bureau’s first indictment. (Denton’s lawyer declined to comment on his case.)

But the indictment could be a turning point, and also an inflection point for the safe-streets movement. 

Many street safety advocates believe Gonzalez is doing the right thing by holding Denton accountable, criminally, for his own fatal actions. But for other advocates, such high-level charges against someone who the state considers so poor that he can’t afford basic life necessities, raises questions about the efficacy of a criminal legal system that looks to punitive punishment rather than rehabilitation and education to make streets safer.

And that creates a gray area in the street safety movement.

The president of the New York Criminal Bar Association, a group representing public and private criminal defense attorneys, told Streetsblog that it’s crucial to start looking towards alternatives to putting people like Denton in jail. Though not a safe-streets advocate himself, Fred Sosinsky, a criminal defense attorney, still referred to the horrific crash that killed Barrera as a mere “accident.” 

“At a time when we are seriously rethinking the supposed benefits of incarcerating more and more of our people, even for serious crimes, there appears to be strong arguments in favor of a better solution than jail for him,” said Sosinsky. “While any vehicular accident which results in someone’s death is truly tragic, one would hope that the unintentional nature of this event, the youth and inexperience of the car’s operator and the lack of financial resources likely required to properly upkeep the car’s condition would mitigate against throwing the book at this young man.” 

The debate over Denton’s case mirrors similar conversations within the broader safe-streets movement that gained momentum over the summer as the country reckoned with the overly aggressive and carceral role of law enforcement after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The street safety version of this discussion seeks to understand if police oversight of traffic enforcement really makes anyone safer — and after a fatal crash, should the driver be sent to jail?

Many prison abolitionists and some safe-street advocates believe incarceration is not the answer to making streets safer, and instead are looking to restorative practices that focus on changing driver behavior both before and after a crash.

“I’d encourage folks to challenge the idea that the criminal legal system is the way to go. We’re still talking about a system that is wholly reactive with not the best results,” said Tiffany Caban, a public defender who lost her bid against Melinda Katz for Queens District Attorney in 2019, and is now running for City Council in Astoria. “We really need to be preventive, without handcuffs or arrests in the first place.”

It’s true that vehicular crimes don’t send people to jail as frequently as other crimes, and the majority of those drivers — like the bus driver who killed Citi Bike rider Dan Hanegby in 2018 — often face no more than 30 days in jail. (The driver, Dave Lewis, is still free pending appeal.)

For example, in 2019, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance prosecuted 18 drivers for killing or injuring pedestrians or cyclists, even though drivers killed at least 21 pedestrians or cyclists and injured hundreds more due to error or recklessness in that borough alone. And of the 18 car drivers that did get charged, only six were charged with felonies or high-level misdemeanors like criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, or even murder.

But does making someone spend even 30 days behind bars really do anything to make streets safer? As Caban would argue — it doesn’t. Instead, she said, advocates should look to changing that person’s behavior starting with physically making it more difficult to drive recklessly to the point of hurting someone by better investing in safe streets infrastructure.

“If you throw somebody in jail for these problems it’s not doing anything to change behavior,” she said. “My focus is on how do we get absolutely the best public safety? By making investments on the front end and being unafraid to say that incarceration does not work. It doesn’t do the things we want it to do.”

Caban may be onto something — the city’s current system of punishment is not reducing fatal crashes. In 2017, 254 people were killed in the 229,202 reported crashes across the five boroughs; in 2018, there were 230,065 crashes and 226 fatalities; in 2019, there were 211,037 crashes and 243 fatalities (all data from Crashmapper). (Crash numbers declined in 2019 in part due to the NYPD no longer taking minor crash reports in Staten Island.)

A different response

So what’s the alternative?

Luckily, the makings of one already exist in the five boroughs. In 2015, then-Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson launched what’s called the Driver Accountability Program at the Red Hook Community Justice Center as part of a collaborative effort among the NYPD, Center for Court Innovation, Transportation Alternatives, Families for Safe Streets, and Council Member Brad Lander.

Since its launch, more than 2,500 people have gone through the program, which currently only serves drivers convicted of routine criminal offenses while behind the wheel, like speeding, or reckless driving — it generally does not include crimes that carry jail time.

The program includes a 90-minute session that features emotional testimonies from families who have lost loved ones to traffic violence. In exchange for completing the program, the DA agrees to either reduce or forgive fines. The goal is to change behavior and reduce recidivism more than a punitive punishment would, according to the program’s project director, Amanda Berman.

“We’re trying to engage participants to feel empowered, to be agents of their own change, and identify behavior risks on the road and identify steps to take to change that behavior,” said Berman. “We want people to be reflective, and actively engaged in changing their own behavior — given agency. As we all know, the traditional criminal justice system doesn’t give people agency. It’s used as a tool of oppression.”

Since launching five years ago in Brooklyn, the Driver Accountability Program has been expanded to all boroughs except Queens. Berman, who is working with members of Families for Safe Streets, wants to expand the program to include drivers who have been involved in fatal crashes or those that cause severe injuries.

“Our goal is to create another option for people who have caused this level of harm, including taking someone’s life,” she said. That option would only be available if the victim or victim’s family agrees to the alternative restorative process.

“The goal [is to] use a restorative process of bringing together drivers who have seriously injured someone, if that person is recovered and willing to participate, in a dialogue,” said Berman. “Or in cases where there’s been a fatality, the family members’ loved ones, people impacted by that loss, if they are interested in participating, they come together with the driver for a series of dialogues while providing necessary clinical support.”

If the victim’s family doesn’t agree to the program, then the conversation stops, said Berman.

“It’s not appropriate in every case — most important, the victims and survivors need to be on board,” she said. “The goal is to provide an alternative to more punitive responses like jail and prison and at the same time to meet these very deep and urgent, and typically unmet, needs of victims or survivors of going through the criminal legal process.

“We have people on both ends of the system who need to heal,” she added.

But would healing — and justice — happen? Currently, it’s unclear how successful the existing program is; Berman says preliminary data shows that there has been a 40-percent drop in repeat offenders, but the number of people who get a second camera-issued speeding ticket also plummets without such a program.

And last year, the city Council passed Lander’s bill to create a Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program — though now stalled due to budget constraints because of the Covid-19 crisis — which would help expand the current program even further, to stop dangerous behavior before a fatal crash; drivers with five camera-issued red light tickets or 15 camera-issued speeding tickets in any 12-month period would have to take the same 90-minute safe-driving course or have their car seized by authorities.

But Lander told Streetsblog that he’s “not an abolitionist” when it comes to prison and admitted the limitations of applying such a program to drivers involved in crashes causing death or serious injury. Drivers who purposely use their cars as weapons to injure or kill someone should not escape jail time, Lander said, though he added he does see the benefits of decarceration for minor crashes, ones where drivers hardly ever face consequences right now. 

“Where someone was driving recklessly and violated traffic laws, but not aiming to hurt someone, then we almost never hold those folks accountable in any way,” he said. “I don’t think a short jail sentence makes any sense.”

Then again, Lander, along with several other safe-streets advocates involved with Families for Safe Streets, applauded Gonzalez for creating the Street Safety Bureau in the first place. 

“Dangerous drivers with long records of recklessness and speeding often face little accountability for their harmful behavior. I am encouraged that the new Street Safety Bureau will center victims of dangerous driving and partner with street safety advocates and criminal justice reformers to develop new metrics and strategies for preventing traffic violence,” Lander said at the time. 

But another member of Families for Safe Streets said that not everyone within the advocacy movement is on board with decarceration — everyone has a different perspective, both politically and personally.

“We’re really a group of individuals with a lot of different political beliefs within the group and all different kinds of people with different stories and needs around justice. There are members in the group that are angry at us for proposing decarceration,” said Rachel Jones, who is personally focused on decarceration efforts to help expand the Driver Accountability Program, and whose wife suffered a traumatic brain injury from a crash in Brooklyn more than a decade ago. 

The point of reimagining the current system through a program like the Driver Accountability Program is not to offer drivers who kill or injure people a “get out of jail free card,” but to center the victims of traffic violence, who often feel disempowered and lost, and who often get little support both financially and emotionally.

Jones said her wife hardly got enough money to even cover her dental bills, while the driver was able to drive off in his truck that day without anything more than a ticket.

“It just failed from the get-go in that the cops issued a ticket, basically a traffic ticket. That’s all that happened, he got back in his truck and drove away,” she said. “It has to be more-victim centered from the get-go. There should be really more of a serious way to investigate crashes, all of it is very disempowering. Were trying to have a conversation about who suffers and how it falls more on people without resources, those who are marginalized.”

And additional issues with the current “criminal injustice” system, as safe-streets advocate and social worker Chana Widawski refers to it, are that so few people impacted by crashes actually see any form of accountability in their cases; and so many drivers walk away without any accountability for their actions because so few drivers’ cases — only about 3 percent — get prosecuted, she said.

The program will not only serve as an alternative to jail time but also as an entirely new approach to fatal crash cases, where not just those drivers who are prosecuted are held accountable — it would be offered to nearly anyone involved in a crash involving a fatality or serious injury.

“We are trying to break new ground, we need systems beyond the criminal injustice system. Only three percent of our cases ever actually get prosecuted, and we’d love to see this restorative process available not just for those that are deemed criminal by our current definitions,” said Widawski, an organizer for Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives. “I’d love to see this be an option available — so many simply fall through the cracks, they’re not eligible for compensation that other crime victims may be entitled to.”

It’s about taking responsibility

One case dating back to 2013 highlights the failures and limitations of the current criminal legal system, even if a driver is not sent to jail. After 3-year-old Aly Liao was killed by a reckless driver in Queens, then-Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, wrote off the crash as a blameless “accident,” and absolved the driver of any wrongdoing.

It wasn’t until Aly’s family filed a civil suit seeking justice on their own that the driver, Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, faced any repercussions — he lost his license for five years (the Department of Motor Vehicles had previously temporarily suspended his license for just 30 days).

The victim’s father, Hsi-Pei Liao, told Streetsblog that he and his wife really just wanted the driver to take responsibility and admit his fatal error that cost their daughter her life — something very few, or no, defendants do if not pleading guilty.

“We want to make sure he was at least acknowledging something he did…making sure he knows he’s responsible for that — sending someone to jail wasn’t really the answer for us, thinking now, let’s say he did go to jail would that help us?” said Liao. “Even though for us might it feel better, it’s not to their benefit to show guilt in a court system. How do we make a driver show guilt to make the victim’s family feel better about a situation?”

Under the terms of the settlement, Abu-Zayedeh also surrendered 75 percent of his net worth, acknowledged complete responsibility for the crash, and signed a notarized agreement to not drive or apply for a license for five years. Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represented the Liaos, told Streetsblog back in 2015 that extended loss of driving privileges and fines are the norm in other countries for families seeking justice.

“It reflects a comprehensive approach toward justice that victims’ families increasingly are taking in these types of cases, and has the potential to change the way drivers regard the risks of reckless driving,” said Vaccaro.

What happens next?

Beyond the expanded program that advocates like Widawski and Berman are pushing for, the idea of alternatives to incarceration are generally taking shape as hot-button campaign issues within the popular Manhattan District Attorney’s race — where several candidates are advocating for radical changes to a system that’s so far done little to curb violence on the road.

Candidate Eliza Orlins, a longtime Manhattan public defender, said that a prosecutor’s job shouldn’t just mean always trying to throw someone in prison — even in crashes that result in death, like in the case of 21-year-old Denton, who fatally struck 50-year-old Barrera last summer. Sending people like Denton to jail will help no one, when he could benefit far greater from education, and other public programs.

“Just as the criminal-punishment bureaucracy is the wrong instrument for righting the wrongs of our economic, mental health, and social systems, it’s not generally the right tool for addressing our city’s failure to address pedestrian-safety issues,” Orlins said in December, adding this month specifically about Denton’s case, “I will never celebrate locking up a human being. As a public defender, I know that the criminal legal system needs serious reform and must prioritize rehabilitation and decarceration. Throwing people like Mr. Denton in prison for 15 years instead of finding ways to seek restorative justice doesn’t make New York safer.”

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are candidates like Liz Crotty, who is also pushing for decarceration for traffic crimes, but not because she believes in an alternative like the Driver Accountability Program, but because she says they are just “accidents.”